Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Weiner Picoult v. The World

After a late summer vacation and the beginning of fall classes, the Ape gets back into the blogging-swing. Coming up at The Reading Ape: reviews of Franzen’s Freedom, Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death, a reading disease self-diagnosis, and further considerations of reading and the gender gap.

But up first, we pause a moment to reflect on the Weiner-Picoult v. The New York Times whirlwind that kicked up over the last couple of weeks.  Jason Pinter’s interview with the duo for The Huffington Post provides an abundance of mill-grist, so let’s take a look (Ape note: we have never read a work by either Picoult or Weiner.).

1. I am shocked, SHOCKED, to discover there is gambling in this establishment!
Jennifer Weiner: I think it's a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's romance, or a beach book - in short, it's something unworthy of a serious critic's attention.
Takeaway:  Unfortunately, Weiner’s basic point is correct: female writers have not received the same sort of attention that male writers have. So it’s not the sentiment that is particularly interesting here, but the timing (after all, Woolf covered this all 80 years ago in A Room of One’s Own). There seems to be something specifically galling about the Franzen hoopla for Weiner (let’s put a pin in the phrase “serious critic’s attention” for future use).
2. Sometimes the Answer is in the Question
Picoult: …When in today's market you only have a limited review space for books, I wonder what the rationale is for the New York Times to review the same book twice, sometimes in the same week.
Takeaway: The people who write about books for The Times want to write about books they think are important, not giving the widest possible coverage. The narrowing of the focus necessarily increases the wattage given to certain books, and multiple reviews of high profile books tempers the clout of any individual review with multiple perspectives. 

3. The Medium is the Message
Picoult:… I read a lot of commercial fiction and a lot of the same themes and wisdoms I find in commercial fiction are the same themes and wisdoms as what i see lauded in literary fiction.
Takeaway: One thing that the both Picoult and Weiner seem to overlook is the primacy of form in “serious criticism.” Perhaps Picoult is right that the themes and wisdoms are similar, but presumably the style and shape of those themes and wisdoms are not. The mass market appeal of a Picoult novel (or for that matter a Larsson or Grisham) due to “readability” suggests an artlessness that doesn’t appeal to people who spend their lives thinking about literature. 

4. Careful, your Ad Hominem is Showing
Weiner: First of all, I think it's hilarious that a guy who went to Sidwell Friends, Yale and Johns Hopkins, favors "made-to-measure Lord Willys shirts," snacks on charcuterie, sips Calvados and throws book parties at "the velvet-cloaked Russian Samovar" is presuming to lecture anyone on what constitutes true populism. Let the word go forth: my populism is real...and it's spectacular. 
Takeaway: This is not a takeaway so much as it is context: both Weinder and Picoult went to Princeton. 

5. The Flattening of Culture
Weiner: How can anyone claim the paper plays fair when genre fiction that men read gets reviewed but genre fiction that women read doesn't exist on the paper's review pages? It would be as if the paper's film critics only reviewed tiny independent fare and refused to see so much as a single frame of a romantic comedy, or if the music critics listened to Grizzly Bear and refused to acknowledge the existence of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga. How seriously would a reader take a critic like that?
Takeaway: Weiner suggests that a literary critic should have the same breadth as a critic of music or film, but as any serious reader knows, literature, as a genre, resists that sort of coverage. A film reviewer could reasonably see all the new releases in any given week; this is simply impossible for even the most active book reviewer. Couple that with the relative depth of serious book reviews and you start to see why the reviews in The Times can seem more arbitrary than its film or music reviews. 

6. Yea, But See, They Don’t Care About That.
Weiner: I think if the NYT cares about its darlings finding a wider audience, the smartest thing it can do is be a little more respectful toward the books readers are actually reading.
Takeaway: It’s not at all clear that this is the mission of the NY Times. In fact, we sincerely hope it isn’t. If the goal of The Times was to give attention to the books people were actually reading, we’d have mostly Twilight, Clive Cussler, and Sophie Kinsella reviews. And the food writing would be about Doritos. 
Criticism is the last line of a winnowing process that starts with agents, moves to publishers, then to booksellers and critics. Whatever cache the Times Review still has is because there is a level of discernment implied in what it reviews. Take away that discernment and the prestige evaporates. We’re not suggesting that the Times doesn’t require self-reflection (what doesn’t after all?), but that asking them to map popularity is counter-productive. 

7. I Still Don’t Get It
Weiner: I think a most respectful and informed attitude toward a wider range of books would help everyone - commercial writers, literary writers, men, women, and, most importantly, readers.
Takeaway: Weiner and Picoult, by their own admission, make a jillion dollars from their books and their readers adore them. What “help” do they need exactly? We wish they would just pull a full Fredo and say it: “I want respect and I was passed over!” We can understand this feeling and do indeed sympathize with it.
There is a case to be made, we think, that most readers feel estranged from literary writing; it is difficult, provocative, and sometimes experimental. It is, in a very real way, artistically elitist. And it’s these types of books that The Times highlights. Weiner and Picoult might be spot on when they say their books are similar enough to Hornby or Tropper to warrant inclusion: we are not familiar enough to say. 
If the Ape is honest with his primate-self, though, our attitude about the discernment of “serious critics” echoes the sentiment of Colonel Nathan Jessop in Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men: I want them on that wall. I need them on that wall.
          But perhaps those of us who care about such things need to do a better job watching the watchers.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Recent Reading Round-Up

Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie
This collection of short stories captures the range of Alexie's larger body of work quite well. In ten "little" stories, he gives a grand tour of what it means to be Native American in contemporary America, to be both inside and outside, revered and obliterated, living and yet extinct. Considering his somewhat limited scope, his variety is remarkable: these stories are tender, fun, sad, and uplifting by turn--and all take place within a small population of Spokane Indians living in central Washington. Some writers jump from one historical moment and setting to another to spur their creativity (Doctorow comes to mind especially), but Alexie shows that fully exploring the possibilities of even a small group, if done well, offer seemingly limitless possibilities.

Bloodroot by Amy Greene
Bloodroot as several elements that would seem, at first blush, to turn us off the novel: child protagonists, sections labeled by speaker, agrarian mysticism, violence against women as the inciting incident, and an obivous, banal horticultural metaphor. Still, we found ourselves strangely compelled. For one, Greene is fantastic with setting and her rendering of life in the foothills of the Appalachian is reason enough to read Bloodroot. We think perhaps a less complicated narrative and an easing-off of the allegorical pedal would serve Greene well; she writes well enough to do without so much, well, art.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
If Eggers has done nothing else, he's confirmed that the phrase "non-fiction novel" is not a logical absurdity. Combined with What is the What, Zeitoun gives us the beginning of a fascinating direction for Eggers, whose first, blockbuster work, A Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius, was more a display of textual gymnastics than it was coherent. These true stories of people in the middle of major historical events give Eggers a project worthy of his skills. Zeitoun tells the story of a Muslim man and his family during Hurricane Katrina. It is a dizzying and unbelievable tale, told with reamarkable clarity and restraint.  Part Huck Finn, Part Native Son, Zeitoun is readable, poignant, infuriarting, and, impossibly, true.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

While short stories are one of the oldest fictional genres (if not the oldest), "linked" short stories are among the newest. And it's a bit of a strange genre at that--it possesses neither the depth and development of the novel nor the staccato burst of the short story.

It depends instead, somewhat paradoxically, on omission and inclusion. Characters re-appear at different stages in their lives and in different roles, but the spaces between these appearances are left blank. Often it's difficult to find the strain that connects linked short stories beyond similar people or locations. One might argue that linked short stories best represent our lives as we live them; our lives tend not to have the grand narrative arcs of novels or the disparate, concentrated moments of meaning and action of short stories. It is a genre that balances connection and ambiguity.

As such, it is a genre that can be both beguiling and frustrating by turn. The relationships between the linked stories are often as overt as they are elusive. What does it mean exactly if the main character in one story appears as a bystander in a later story? How are we to connect the threads we see, even as the author creates spaces and questions between them?

Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad embodies much that is interesting and confounding about linked short stories. Like many such collections, the central figures of A Visit from the Goon Squad are not people, but ideas--in this case time, memory, maturation, music and technology.

Egan shows us the effect of these forces on a handful of recurring characters, even as she keeps them at arm's length. For example, the collection starts with a blind date between Sasha and Alex, a young couple living in New York City in what appears to be the present day. Sasha, an assistant to record-executive Bennie Salazar, is a kleptomaniac who is probably the most fully formed character in the work; we see her as an adolescent, as a lost woman-child in Europe, and finally as a reasonably well-adjusted mother of two in a not-too-distant future America. And yet, we don't get to know her. We watch her and follow her, track her and recognize her, but Egan keeps her at a distance. The effect is rather more cinematic than fictional; like a movie character, Sasha's interiority is largely inaccessible, even as we have her square in our sights.

This is one consequence of linked stories; we are not given much insight into cause and effect. Sasha is a kleptomanic at the start and appears not be in the end. What was the source of her compulsion? How did it resolve itself? These questions are left open, even as we know somewhere there are answers.
These narrative particularities aside, A Visit from the Good Squad does contain two especially striking stories, both of which could stand on their own in a more traditional story collection. The most formally innovative "story" in the collection is actually a PowerPoint presentation called "Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake." The presentation is a notebook-cum-diary of a young girl in PowerPoint form. The graphs, flowcharts, tables, and bullet-lists represent Alison's attempt to figure her family out, from her Dad's startling disquient to her probably-autistic brother's obsession with pauses in rock music.

Alison'r project, and that of her brother, share some of the larger questions of the collection: How do you understand people who don't understand themselves? How do you deal with incomplete or ambiguous information? How do you construct the story of your life out of the thing strands of your experience?
Egan's final story, "Pure Language," takes these same questions and turns them upside down. In it, 30-something husband and father Alex (who appears on the blind date in the first story) participates in an elaborate technology-driven promotion for an outdoor concert in lower Manhattan. Essentially, the sceme is viral-promotion masquerading as "authentic" word of mouth: using social networking, well-placed text messages to influential friends, and subliminal messages, Alex and the rest of the concert promoters "manufacture" desire among parents and children to go see a show by a fading rock musician. Or rather, they manufacture the perception that the concert will fill a latent desire for connection, collectivity, and transcendence in this particular population.

These twin stories suggest that Egan sees a choice before us. Either we learn to deal with the incompleteness and ambiguity of our lives or we we look for some kind of resolution, even if that means looking to artificial, packaged solutions to what ails us.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Out of the Monkey House

The Ape answered a few questions about books and blogging for Becky over at Page Turners. If you'd like to know the origin of the name "The Reading Ape" or why we once wedged books under a washing machine, head on over there and take a look. Many thanks to Becky for the space and time.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Literary Fact of the Day Round-Up: August 2-15

Gustave Flaubert.
(Not pictured: his mother and his syphilis)
On the Ape's Twitter feed (@readingape), we feature a daily tidbit of literary history, the Literary Fact of the Day (#lfotd). Here's a recap of what ran over the last couple of weeks, in their original, tweetable form:

  • The first 3000-copy printing of MOBY DICK did not sell out in Melville's lifetime and netted him less than $600.
  • Flaubert suffered from multiple venereal diseases and lived with his mother for most of his adult life. Go figure.

  • Dostoyevsky was sentenced to death for his radical ideas + was even lined up before a firing squad before his sentence was commuted.

  • Ralph Ellison used to copy Hemingway's short stories by hand to get a feel for what it meant to write like him.

  • "Un"paralleled: Shakespeare was the first to use "unreal," "uncomfortable," "unaware," "unearthly," "undress" among many others.

  • Whitman paid to have the first 800 copies LEAVES OF GRASS published.

  • Faulkner's most notable screenwriting efforts were adaptations of novels not written by him: TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT and THE BIG SLEEP.

  • M. Chabon got an 155k advance for MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH, after one of his professors, unbeknownst to Chabon, sent it to an agent.

  • Coleridge wrote all 300 lines of "Kublai Khan" in one sitting after waking from a dream at 4am.

  • At Fitzgerald's funeral, Dorothy Parker reportedly said "the poor son-of-a-bitch," which was also said at the funeral of Jay Gatsby.

  • Reading at JFK's inaugural, Robert Frost was blinded by sunlight and so recited "The Gift Outright" from memory.

  • Allen Ginsberg once stripped naked during a reading of "Howl" as a retort to a heckler.

  • In 1950, Gwendolyn Brooks become the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. 

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Saying things are "Overrated" is "Overrated"

After reading Anis Shivani's 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers, I was tempted both to attack his critical suppositions (“If we don't understand bad writing, we can't understand good writing” and “As for conglomerate publishing, the decision-makers wouldn't know great literature if it hit them in the face” among other howlers) and defend those among his choices whom I admire (Lahiri, Diaz, Ashberry, among others.) From there I most assuredly would have debased myself by exposing his inability to use subordinating conjunctions correctly  and to construct a parallel list. Ahem.

This would have been both futile and, well, unpleasant. There's really no arguing opinion, and his diatribe, as much as it might be framed as the pleading of the last honest man in show business, is just opinion. So, any attempt to rebut his flame-throwing would have required equally incendiary tactics: questioning taste, undercutting authority, needling intention, and calling out integrity.

What's interesting to me now is the idea of something being properly “rated.” Presumably Shivani doesn't think Sharon Olds should be tarred and feathered; it's just that her acclaim and success does not seem to him commensurate with her ability. At its core, labeling something under- or  over-rated is a call for justice, for an equivalence of achievement to acknowledgment.

Of and in itself this is not a bad motive, as it would theoretically strip some of their excess “rating” and re-assign it to those who don't enjoy a “rating” their work deserves. The problem with this, as I see it at least, is that it requires an arbiter, a critic-king to redistribute the literary laurels appropriately. And no such being exists. Shivani bemoans the lack of a contemporary taste-maker who might restore order (hence the mentions of Malcolm Cowley and Alfred Kazin), but in doing so ,he uncritically re-asserts the idea that there is some objective measure of quality. His argument is that there is some definable characteristics of good writing; it's just that we don't have anyone who is either willing or able to do the measuring.

This is, of course, silly.

The ideological forces that brought down literary taste-making are the same that have opened our collective eyes to the fallacy of objective worth. What remains is discourse—the argument between you and I over who should be read and who shouldn't. That discussion can be immensely interesting, satisfying, provocative, and enjoyable (it is the reason I do what I do for a living.). However, each participant must first acknowledge the rules of the game: that your opinion is only valid insofar as you acknowledge it to be your opinion, that the goal of the discussion is revel in the possibility of art and of each other. We should champion those writers we cherish, but this doesn't require us to besmirch the darlings of others. Such behavior does not become us and can only serve to muddy the already tempestuous waters of contemporary literature.

The desire to rate is the desire to organize and understand the world; if we know something's rating, then we can use that knowledge to maximize our happiness. If Faulkner is 9.0 and O'Connor is an 8.8, then I should make sure I read Faulkner before I get to O'Connor. But as we all know, this doesn't generally work, especially in literature. My 9.0 says as much about me as it says about Faulkner or O'Connor or Melville or Stephanie Meyer, much as Shivani's slash-and-burn approach to opinions that aren't his says more about him than it does the writers he belittles.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Classically Misunderstood

Time for another installment of our occasionl feature Ask the Ape, in which the Ape responds to reader questions, comments, and condemnations. This one comes from Kevin at Interpolations
Because I'm opinionated, I desperately want to hazard a guess about the 5-10 most misunderstood novels of all time. But since I don't know enough about world literature, I'd like you to hazard a guess for me, when time permits. Perhaps it can be a future blog entry.... Cheers, Kevin 
We like this question for two reasons. First, it bravely suggests that  this humble primate can speak intelligently about novels "of all time." Though we are relatively well schooled in literary history, any attempt at a list will necessarily be incomplete (not that that will stop us). Second, it gives us a chance to offer somewhat less common readings of well-known texts.  So, without further disclaimer or ado, five texts (not all novels, though) in need of re-assessment. (Warning: there is some discussion of endings here, so if you haven't read these and want the sanctity of their plot preserved, you best look away).

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
For better or worse, TGG is widely considered a candidate for The Great American Novel. We don't disagree, but it's not quite that simple. One of the primary American cultural narratives is of opportunty and self-creation--both clearly at the center of Jay Gatsby's story. However, TGG seems quite skeptical of the reality of those processes; in the end, his attempts to change his life and sate his desires ends in calamitous fashion. The final image of boats beating ceaselessly against the tide seems surprisingly fatalistic, considering the overwhelming edification of the novel.  Read in this fashion, TGG is a Great American Novel that questions the greatness of America. 

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The main problem here is the joint charisma of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. Their Beatrice/Benedict act is indeed a joy, but our fascination with it camouflages the major class upheavals the book chronicles. One need look no further than the opposite trajectories of the newly rich Bingleys and the aristocratic de Bourghs. The vitality and beauty of Mr. Bingley stands in stark contrast to the sickly, possibly inbred, Anne de Bourgh. Furthermore, that Darcy can even think to marry Lizzy over Anne signals a seismic shift in the class tectonics of the day. It perhaps is no mistake that the electricity of the Elizabeth-Darcy courtship distracts from the collisions of marriage and money that are happening in the background: Austen may well have been wary of putting the decay of the British aristocracy front and center.

The Odyssey of Homer
This is a candidate mostly because it is generally taught in pieces; few general literature classes tackle the whole thing. Most of us who have had any exposure to the wanderings of Odysseus remember his famous encounters with the Lotus-eaters, the Cyclops, Scylla and Chrybdis and so forth. What we don't remember, or were never shown, was that Odysseus could have fabricated the whole thing. When he washes up on the shore of Scherie, he is in desperate straits. Always the trickster, he swindles his way into the royal palace, where he proceeds to narrate to the king and queen all of his troubles and travails. The problem is that he has no corroboration; all of his fellow voyagers have been lost. So there is the very real possibility that Odysseus, inventor of the Trojan Horse, is fabricating most of The Odyssey to elicit sympathy from those who can help him along the way. Homer's great trick here is to put us in the place of the king and queen; we are so ensorcled by Odysseus' tale that we forget to question its veracity.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Another case of the story masking possible meanings. Those who have read C + P won't soon forgot it; it is a engrossing fever-dream of crime, guilt, and ideas. The book is so long and exhausting that by the time we get to the end, when Raskolnikov is serving out his prison sentence, we might not notice the radical conservatism of the novel. Raskolnikov starts out an idealist and a revolutionary; he has decided to put action to thought and kill someone who he, perhaps rightly, thinks is harming the larger community. He is very much a representative of a whole host of radical ideas that were circulating in Europe at the time. C + P, however, ends with Raskolnikov rebuking his former ideas and engaged in a serious, redemptive relationship with the hyper-religious Sonia. For all the transgression of style and in content in the body of the novel, Dostoyevsky brings us back to relatively familiar territory. It is remarkable writerly sleight-of-hand; the reader thinks they are reading one kind of story but are getting quite another.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
This one has some of the properties of The Odyssey, Pride and Prejudice, and The Great Gatsby. The party line about TEWWG, as we understand it, is that the center of the story is the progressive romantic relationship between Janie and Tea-Cake, which ends tragically and surreally. The first problem here is that we again have no corroboration; Hurston stages the novel much as Homer stages The Odyssey. Janie is returning to her hometown, seeking support and succor from her friend. And what could elicit more sympathy than a tale of perfect love lost spectacularly? Even if we chose to read Janie's story as true, the symbolism at the end of that love story is sort of disturbing. Tea Cake contracts rabies and Janie must shoot him or have him murder her. It doesn't take the good Dr. Freud to see how fraught of a "love" story that is. In fact, the unicity of the Jane-Tea Cake union is itself an indictment of the possibility of a real, egalitarian heterosexual relationship. 

So there are our five? Additions? Disagreements? We look forward to your futile attempts to convince us.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Recent Reading Round-Up

Quick note before offering some abbreviated thoughts on our recent reading: you can now subscribe to The Ape by email. There's a link over in the right hand column that says, coyly, "Subscribe the Reading Ape by Email." So there's one more option for our repeat offe...er...returning readers.

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

Showing your artistic influences plainly is a lose-lose proposition. If you succeed, you are an imitator: if you fail, your shortcomings are thrown into even greater relief. The three principal influences of Adam Ross’ Mr. Peanut figure prominently in the novel itself: the films of Alfred Hitchcock, the brain-twisting visual impossibilities of M.C. Escher, and the forensic conundrum of Dr. Samuel Sheppard, the man whose story inspired The Fugitive (both the TV series and the movie). Taken together, this pop-culture assemblage doesn’t in the end turn out to be much. David Pepin may or may not have murdered his wife. Same with Dr. Shepard. There are twists, refractions, and indeterminacies aplenty, but Mr. Peanut is more postmodern koan than it is captivating.

The Quickening by Michelle Hoover

This is the kind of book I love, but probably wouldn’t ever recommend to someone who isn’t, well, me. The Quickening is the story of a fraught friendship between two farm women during the first few decades of the 20th Century. Hoover writes the kind of restrained-but-full prose that characterizes so much fiction about farm life and I can’t get enough of it. The quiet fortitude, the daily desperation, and the small victories of these lives and times are all rendered so ably here that I can overlook the relative paucity of narrative interest. This is a portrait of a way of life more than a story. I loved it.

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
An "accessible" Pynchon novel is like a "domesticated" howler monkey: crazy and fun, but you can’t be surprised when things get messy. Inherent Vice is the love child of Raymond Chandler and Tom Robbins: it has Chandler’s knack for writing inscrutable but compelling noir plots combined with Robbins indulgent, resplendent and absurd joie de vivre. Stir in a little of Pynchon’s special sauce (a surfeit of characters, symbols, and allusions) and you have a charming disaster.  Also, bananas make a metaphorical cameo that Pynchon fans are sure to enjoy, then head-scratch over.

Friday, August 6, 2010

How should I spend my next $100 book dollars?

I do most of my book buying on Amazon. There. I said it. I try to throw some business at my excellent local bookstore, BookCourt, but I probably only buy one out of every ten books there.

The reasons for this are as familiar as they are compelling: cost, convenience, and selection. Amazon has everything I want at the best price, and my order gets to me in two days. It is simply impossibly inexpensive and easy. And therein lies the problem.

Because I also know that Amazon doesn’t play nice. To say they lean on publishers for lower prices is a bit like saying Michael Corleone “played hardball” with the five families. These concessions trickle down to lower the pay of editors, agents, and writers (I would like to know more about this, so if anyone knows of an article or essay that gives some insight, I’d LOVE to see it).

For Amazon, books are a commodity and a piece to their business puzzle. They are not romantic objects. They are not vessels for knowledge and beauty. They are consumer goods, packaged, priced, and bought as such. And part of me is alright with that (more on this in a minute). But there’s part of me that isn’t.

I’ve rationalized my Amazon buying to this point like this: if I buy from Amazon, I can buy more books with the same amount of money. So while each individual purchase doesn’t provide that author and house with the same return on a full-retail sale, there are more people getting something, albeit in smaller amounts.
Now, however, I’ve read and heard to many Amazon stories to keep my head in the sand, and I need to at least reconsider how I deploy my literary dollars. So I’ve done a little comparison shopping and crunched some numbers—now I ask you, dear readers, to help me think this through.

How should I spend my next $100 book dollars? 

First I need data and a control group. I decided on $100 since it makes on the spot comparison easier and can be multiplied out to figure out what my purchasing choices mean over longer periods of time, say, a year. I then picked a selection of titles I very well may buy over the next month or so (I don’t keep a TBR pile. At most, I have two books waiting to be read at any given time. This, from what I can tell, makes me a little unusual in the book blogging world, but I enjoy picking out what to read next too much to subject myself to starting down a stack of waiting titles). I may not read a few of these, but they are all books I might read, so they’ll do for our purposes.

Here are the titles:

  • Kings of the Earth by Jon Clinch
  • American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell
  • The Love of the Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • American Rust by Philipp Meyer
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  • Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody
  • Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey

Four of them are hardbacks (Kings of the Earth, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Four Fingers of Death, and Perfect Reader), and all but one are by living authors (Fitzgerald, of course, being the one exception. As he often is).

I then priced them out by retailer: Amazon, Barnes and Noble online, my local BookCourt, New York indie giant The Strand, and Powell’s.

Here are the results:

Full Cover Price: $145.84

                                     Amazon: $99.35
Barnes and Noble: $102
BookCourt: $130.29
The Strand: $126.23
Powell’s: $130.26

(If you’re interested in the full breakdown, here’s my spreadsheet)

As you can see, the divide is as predictable as it is impressive. The big boys are about 30% cheaper than the upstarts (Does anyone know the relative evil of B&N compared to Amazon? Amazon is today’s whipping boy, but there was a time when all the heat was headed toward the brick and mortar chains).

At first glance, thirty bucks doesn’t seem like that much to pay for goodness, truth, and beauty (ahem), but I could use that thirty bucks to buy about three new paperbacks from Amazon. That’s another sale for three more authors, for three more publishers. And if I apply the difference to my full year of book-buying, which includes not only my personal reading, but also my academic purchases and gift-giving, buying only from independent bookstores will probably cost me about around $1000 over twelve months.

(And I could go a step further. I looked at the lowest cost of buying these seven titles, including used, remaindered, or review copies. The total there: $82.03, of which only $27.09 would ever find its way back to authors or publishers. By this measure, I am already paying about 15% more than I, as a rationale consumer, should. So there.)

So now we come down to it…should I allocate my dollars differently? I cannot really, from a strictly budgetary perspective, just fork over $1000 extra dollars a year. But how much am I hurting this industry I love by buying mainly out of my self-interest? I really don’t know.

If I go to a hybrid model, in which I moderate the largest differences in price between my local and Amazon, I can buy the seven for 112.97 with about half that going to my local bookstore. Over the course of a year, this would run me an extra $400 or so. This is better, but still kind of hard to swallow*.

What exactly is a hand-wringing book buyer to do?

(Regular readers will notice that I've stopped linking to book pages on Amazon; this has all caused me to rethink my affiliate relationship with Amazon. If anyone out there has any ideas for me on this front, I'm all ears.)

*I guess it could be worse. I could check them out from the library.  

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

We're finding it difficult to process Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, so consider the below not so much a review as post-view, an attempt to get some sort of handle on an unruly text.


Though Lenny Abramov, the protagonist of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, reads War and Peace lovingly and obsessively, he does not read it well (more on this later). Shteyngart, however, clearly has, and the presence of Tolstoy’s masterwork in the novel is no accident (nor is the brief mention of 1984).

Like War and Peace, Super Sad Love Story takes place during the waning of an Empire in a dystopian near-future New York City where characters scramble to make sense of what is happening and find a place for themselves in the new world order. Here the Napoleonic Wars are replaced with the skirmishes of international capitalism; America’s economic weakness is being exploited by international conglomerates disguised as nations. State-sponsored capitalism is clearly the boogeyman here, particularly Abramov’s employer Staatling-Wapachung, a Sino-European corporate griffin poised to profit from a financial coup de grace in toppling the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Against this backdrop, Super Sad True Love Story follows Lenny as he tries to get the girl---a beautiful, vapid second generation Korean immigrant who is attracted to Lenny initially only for his salary (more than “239,000 yuan-pegged dollars a year”).

A late 30s schlub working for a “life extension” company, Lenny reads Tolstoy obsessively and furtively, for in this New New York, printed books are embarrassing relics, read only by the tragically uncool.  If going “viral” is our metaphor for digital popularity, social networking here has gone positively bubonic. People are continuously and addictively tuned into their “apparat”, smartphone-like devices that track the information of those immediately around them. Its killer-app (and model name) is RateMe: a steroidal Facebook/Twitter amalgam that gives users access to each other’s age, weight, personal and financial history, and a constantly update desirability index, rating a “personality” and “fuckability” on an 800-point scale. (It is an information orgy that spills over into consumer products: women’s clothing comes from two primary companies: AssLuxury and TotalSurrender.)

The Lenny-Eunice union is draped over a digital divide: his old world romanticism strains against her immersion in the electron-crazed zeitgeist—a tension exhibited in the structure of the novel itself, which shifts between his handwritten diary entries and transcripts of her email and online chats.

Readers might be tempted, being readers, to side with the bookish and old-fashioned Lenny, though I think his War and Peace fetish is a signal from Shteyngart to be wary. Lenny’s belief in his own agency (he stresses on the first page that his mission is to be immortal) becomes comic as the larger forces of culture and history crash on the rocks around him; no amount of Enlightenment thinking is going to provide him a harbor in this storm. For as much as digital narcissisim and global capitalism are the overt targets of Shteyngart’s satire, it is the paradox of information that I find the most fascinating.

The more information Lenny, Eunice, and the rest of the characters accumulate, the more their helplessness and limitation are laid bare. Does it do Lenny any good to know that he is generally regarded as one of the least attractive man in the room? Or does Eunice profit from watching her fuckability score oscillate depending on the cut of her clothes? Of course not. All this self-voyeurism only distracts from the ineluctable forces, both private and public, that shape their lives. For all of her beauty and youth, Eunice cannot escape the shadow of her father’s abuse. For all of Lenny’s self-inspection and optimism, he, like everyone else, is flawed and mortal. Their desire to enumerate their being is a desire for control: of their image, of their fortunes, and of their lives.

As it so happens, Tolstoy’s second epilogue to War and Peace might be thought of as a primer for understanding the worldview of Super Sad True Love Story, all of its own distractions and inventions notwithstanding:
[I]t now seems as if we have only to admit the law of inevitability, to destroy the conception of the soul, of good and evil, and all the institutions of state and church that have been built up on those conceptions…it is similarly necessary to renounce a freedom that does not exist, and to recognize a dependence of which we are not conscious.
Somewhat dizzingly, what is articulated here is a call to be-aware of our self-deception, to transcend solipsism not by asserting our ego, but by acknowledging our limitation and fallenness.

Those whose interests align with a resistance to technology (ie most writers and reviewers) will probably praise Shteyngart’s critique of the digital age. Those who see themselves at the vanguard of contemporary culture will probably accuse him of literary grumpsterism. They might both be right, but I suspect they would both be wrong. The object of terror here is neither the medium nor the message; it is the clear-eyed awareness of what we cannot do.

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Daily Dose of Literary Trivia

For some unknown reason, we've started tweeting a daily literary fact, somewhat abstrusely called Literary Fact of the Day.

For the non-tweeting out there, here's a run-down of what we chirped last week: 

  • Ezra Pound once claimed that he had never read any Russian literature.
  • Elizabeth Bishop refused to have her poetry published in anthologies of women's writing.
  • Hemingway's personal library had 7000+ volumes including (deliciously) THREE copies of FItzgerald's THE CRACK-UP. 
  • Faulkner wanted the text in The Sound in the Fury to be in four colors---one for each of the narrators.
  • In 1572, Cervantes was captured by Algerian pirates and enslaved for 5 years, before eventually being ransomed.
  • In 2010 dollars, Mr. Darcy's annual income would be about $600,000 per year.
  • Shakespeare's only son died in 1596 at the age of 11. His name.....wait for it.........Hamnet. (yup, with an n).
So if you're up for a quotidian morsel of bookish trifles, follow us @readingape or you can search the hashtag #lfotd. If you aren't aboard the Twitter train, never fear: we'll do a run-down from time to time of what you've missed.